Sunday, April 29, 2012

Questions About The Tribulation

On Sunday morning we asserted from Matthew 24 that Jesus Christ will rapture (snatch or catch up) the Church after the Tribulation. Since many in our church believe that this rapture will take place before the Tribulation, I thought it would be helpful to answer a number of questions that people have about a posttribulational rapture.

Question 1: “I thought the time of the tribulation was ‘a time of distress for Jacob’ according to Jer. 30:7. Doesn’t that mean it is a time of judgment for Israel and not the New Testament Church?”

Answer 1: In the context Jeremiah is talking about the Day of the Lord, which is a coming time of judgment at the end of time. However, nothing in this context, in the rest of the Old Testament, or anywhere in the New Testament would suggest this time would be primarily for the nation of Israel. In fact, one chapter later than this (Jeremiah 31:31) we read that God “will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah”. Yet, in the New Testament we find out this covenant is fulfilled in the Church—Jew and Gentile, not merely among Jews (1 Cor. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:6; Heb. 8:1-13). What this means is that Jeremiah was speaking from the perspective of God’s people in the 6th century B.C., telling them that in the future God would make a new covenant with his people—a people the New Testament defines as the Church, Jew and Gentile. Since this is the case, it is also possible that Jeremiah 30:7 could allow for the phrase “a time of distress for Jacob” to have a broader application than to merely national Israel (see in Galatians 6:16 where the Church is referred to as “the Israel of God”). Yet, even if this is not the case with Jeremiah 30:7, there is nothing about this text that suggests this future time would be exclusively for Israel or would have to be experienced by them, but not the New Testament Church.

Question 2: “I read in Revelation 3:10 that Jesus promised the church in Philadelphia, ‘Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the world, to try those who dwell on the earth.’ Doesn’t this mean that the Church must be removed from the locale of the earth before this time of trial or testing comes upon the earth? Wouldn’t this support a pretribulational rapture?”

Answer 2:  In Revelation 3:10 though it is not for sure that “hour of trial” refers to the time of intensified suffering and judgment at the very end of this age, even if it is, it does not necessitate the removal of the Church from the earth. The same words for “keep” and “from” in this verse are also used in John 17:15 when Jesus prayed to the Father, “but that you keep them from the evil one.” (emphasis added) What is significant about this is that he prayed right before that, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world….”  In other words, it is possible to “keep from” in such a way that one is not removed from the realm where the difficulties are taking place. In the same way Jesus was praying in John 17:15 that his disciples be protected from falling prey to or being destroyed by the devil, so also, the promise to the saints in Philadelphia may be one of protection in the midst of hardship, rather than removal out of it.

Question 3: But, isn’t it true that God would not let his bride go through such great times of difficulty?

Answer 3: The answer to this question as it is stated is this: No, it is not true that God would prevent his New Testament Church from experiencing great suffering. In fact, he made it clear that Christians would face great suffering and persecution in this age (John 15:20; Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:17-18; 2 Tim. 3:12). It should also be noted that the best representatives of the pretribulational rapture never use the argument that “God would never allow his Church to go through such hard times,” though at a popular level some do believe this. The best representatives distinguish between suffering and persecution on the one hand and the Great Tribulation toward the end of this age that includes an outpouring of God’s wrath. Their argument is that since the New Testament Church is in Christ and there is now no more condemnation (Rom. 8:1), they would not go through this time of wrath. However, as we have already demonstrated, it is possible for the Church to be present during this time, yet to be guarded or protected from the wrath of God.

Question 4: “What about the book of Revelation? How does it fit in with what we have said so far about the Tribulation?  For the answer to that question, you will need to come back to the blog next week…

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Primer On End-times Teaching In The Bible

On Sunday I began a sermon series on Matthew 24-25 titled “This Age And The Second Coming Of Christ”. Since I have introduced this topic of what the Bible teaches about the end-times, I decided it would be helpful to explain some of the different questions that arise whenever anyone looks at this subject in the Bible and also the various approaches that Christians have taken throughout history on these issues.

The Millennium
The first and most overarching issue that emerges is that of the millennium. The word millennium means “one thousand years” (from the Latin for 1,000 years) and arises out of Revelation 20:4 where we read:  “Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.”

The first position we will discuss related to these 1,000 years is that Jesus Christ will engage in a literal 1,000 reign on earth after his Second Coming during which time these saints will reign with him. This reign will come prior to entering into eternity future that includes the new heaven and new earth. Because this view sees Jesus’ Second Coming to be prior to this millennium, it is known as Premillennialism. This view was present in the early church, fell out of vogue by the 4th century and did not arise again in any widespread manner until the 19th century. It has been particularly popular in the 20th-21st centuries in England and the United States.

The second position we will discuss is that this millennial reign of Jesus Christ on earth will eventually be gradually ushered in through the spread of the gospel and the growth of the Church. Jesus Christ will return after this time, so this view is known as Postmillennialism. Postmillennialism was popular among some British and American Puritans, as well as more Liberal-minded mainline churches of the first part of the 20th century. Though it has some proponents currently even among evangelicals, it has been hard up to find supporters since after the second World War.

The third position is known as Amillennialism. This approach believes that there will not be a literal reign of Jesus Christ on the earth prior to the new heaven and new earth. Instead, the reference in Revelation 20 speaks figuratively of the reign of Christ and/or saints with him during the Church Age. Those who hold to this position believe the number 1,000 is to be taken symbolically for a long period of time. This was the prominent position from the 4th century on through the 18th century. Though Premillennialism has been very popular among British and American evangelicals the past two centuries, Amillennialism continues to have strong support.

The official position of the Evangelical Free Church Of America in their doctrinal statement is Premillennialism. A person does not have to hold to Premillennialism to attend a Free Church, nor even to be a member of one. Technically, a pastor does not necessarily have to be Premillennial to be a pastor in a Free Church, though he must hold this position to be credentialed in the EFCA (credentialing is recommended, but not required) and many congregations will not call a pastor who has a different position.

The Tribulation
The major issue that surfaces is how a person views the period known as the “tribulation”. This is a time of suffering and persecution faced by believers of God (Matthew 24:9, 21; Rev. 7:14).

The first question that arises about the Tribulation is whether or not it is a literal seven year period, that is, a literal period of two 3.5 year periods put back to back (see Dan. 7:25; 12:7; Rev. 12:6, 14). There are those who claim that it is to be taken literally. Most who take it literally argue that it will come at the end of the Church age or just after the Church age, that is, just before or just after the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Those who say it comes after the Second Coming usually believe it is a time of tribulation primarily for Israel—during which time many in Israel will come to faith. Those who say it comes just prior to the Second Coming believe it is a time of heightened persecution and suffering for the Church (Jew and Gentile) that comes on the tail-end of a Church age that includes persecution and suffering.

The Evangelical Free Church Of America does not require one or the other view on the nature of the Tribulation, although the vast majority in the EFCA hold to a literal seven year period.

The second question that arises has to do with the relationship of the Tribulation to the millennium and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

Those who are Postmillennial tend to see the Tribulation as figurative and depicting the time of persecution throughout the Church age and even as the gospel spreads and the Church grows. For Postmillennialists Christ is returning after the Tribulation.

Those who are Ammillennial also tend to see the Tribulation as figurative and depicting the time of persecution throughout the Church age. In their mind the Tribulation and the Millennium run concurrently. For Amillennialists Christ is returning after the Tribulation.

Most who are Premillennial see the Tribulation as a literal seven years of suffereing, persecution (and in some cases judgment), though a growing minority of Premillennialists see it is figurative and spanning the Church age.

Within Premillennialism there are three approaches to the timing of the Second Coming in relation to the Tribulation. Pretribulational Premillennialists believe Jesus Christ will return, take the New Testament Church in a secret rapture before the Tribulation, and then a literal seven year period of persecution and judgment will take place upon the earth—during which time many Jews will come to realize Jesus is the Messiah.  Midtribulational Premillennialists believe similarly that the Tribulation is literal. They believe the Church will not be raptured away until the first half of the Tribulation is over and before judgment begins to be reigned down on the earth. Finally, Posttribulational Premillennialism believes Christ will return after the Tribulation to rapture the Church. Those who believe the Tribulation is figurative and spans the age of the Church belong to this camp, though some Posttribulational proponents hold to a literal seven year Tribulation.

The EFCA does not take an official position on the timing of the Rapture to the Second Coming of Christ, though in their early history they were decidedly Pretribulational.

Some of you may want to know where I stand. Years ago I was Amillennial before switching to Posttribulational Premillennialism. I still have many similarities with Amillennialism. These two positions (Posttribulational Premillennialism and Amillennialism) have a great deal of similarity in their approach. Both tend to see the Tribulation as figurative and running concurrently to the entire Church age.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Joyful Following In The Mission At Any Cost

On Sunday April 15 I looked in my sermon at the Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20, where I affirmed that the Great Commission is not optional, but is part of what it means to observe all that Jesus commanded for every believer. By looking at the example of the Apostle Paul from Colossians 1:24 I want to make an additional point in this post, namely that such following of our Savior in his Great Commission ought to be done joyfully and regardless of the cost.  

Colossians 1:24 reads: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”

It Should Be Joyful
Paul begins this verse with these words: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings.” Most likely Paul intends for the term translated “now” to mean something like, “Based upon what I have just written, here is what is true at this very moment.” Paul was imprisoned when he wrote this letter (4:10, 18). Though the manifold sufferings that came with such a circumstance were true of him, he still found joy in them in light of the great hope and benefits that come out of the gospel, the very gospel of which Paul is a minister (1:5-6, 23) and which is the glorious good news of his preeminent, sufficient Savior, Jesus Christ (1:15-22). The glorious gospel and Savior give us some sense of why Paul would rejoice, but they still don’t tell the whole picture. What else leads Paul to rejoice in hardships?

To begin, in the words “for your sake” we discover that Paul grasped his sufferings were benefiting people. Paul was imprisoned for preaching the gospel (Phil. 1:16) and he knew that only by such proclamation would people come to know Jesus Christ as Savior (Col. 1:5, 23) and also grow in him (Col. 1:6 [see also Romans 16:25f.]). So, Paul rejoiced not so much in the sufferings themselves, but the fact that he was imprisoned for preaching the gospel and such preaching brought eternal benefits to others.

Additionally, Paul understood that his missions work not only benefited people, but more specifically he was going through this “for the sake of his body, that is, the church”. Through the redemption accomplished by Christ for the church and applied to the church the Lord is shown to be preeminent (Col. 1:18). In other words, in the reality that Christ died and was the firstborn from the dead—implying the redeemed Church would also rise from the dead, this magnifies him. So, Paul grasps that Christ is glorified through his call “to make the word of God fully known” (1:25).

Though Paul does not mention any other motivations for joy here, in another letter he wrote during this same imprisonment he made it clear that the great driving force in his life was Jesus Christ. He wanted Christ to be exalted in all he did—whether he lived or died (Phil. 1:19-21a). In fact, Paul so delighted in Christ he affirmed that to die and to be with Christ was gain, it was far better than to continue on in this life (Phil. 1:21b-23). This focus upon his future reward of being with Christ is also heightened since he knew that slight momentary afflictions in this life are preparing for him an eternal weight of glory (2 Cor. 4:17). This glory consists of his being with Christ and also the manner in which his life would redound to the glory of the Savior. The apostle knew that in that day Jesus Christ would be glorified in his saints (2 Thes. 1:10).

So, serving the Lord and his people brought great joy to Paul, even if it also brought suffering. We might put it this way, Paul believed the gain was worth the pain!

We Should Follow Christ In Our Mission Regardless Of The Cost
Paul understood there was a necessary suffering involved in much missions work. This is communicated in this part of the verse:  “And in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” Paul here iss not talking specifically about the afflictions Jesus Christ suffered in his atoning work. We know this since nowhere else does Paul use this phrase or a similar phrase in that way. Additionally, if that is what he means and was suggesting that something was lacking in the saving work accomplished by Christ for the church, this would contradict the rest of this letter that argues for the sufficiency of the work of Christ (e.g. 1:12-14, 15-23; 2:13-15). We do find some help understanding this phrase from a similar phrase in 2 Corinthians 1:5, “Christ’s sufferings,” which in context refered to sufferings that came to Paul because he was serving Jesus Christ. So, “Christ’s afflictions” or “Christ’s sufferings” are those afflictions or sufferings that are experienced by the gospel messenger and that come on account of service for Christ.

The term translated “what is lacking” is used elsewhere to refer to situations that are not necessarily deficient, but would be benefited by having more of something added. For example, to a church whose faith Paul praises multiple times, he writes that he prays that he might see them to “supply what is lacking in your faith” (1 Thes. 3:10). This is similar to saying to a man who just picked up half a glass of water, “Here, let me fill it up.” The word translated “I am filling up” supports this understanding since it and its related terms often speak of supplying or filling up something that is not necessarily deficient (2 Cor. 8:14b; Phil. 2:30).

So, what Paul was saying is that he needed to supply an additional amount of something already present that would aid the Colossians, the body of Christ with the gospel. That something was suffering experienced by gospel messengers for the sake of Christ. The only way this makes sense is for Paul to believe that those who seek to live godly in Christ and to take this gospel to others will suffer as a result of the anger of the devil (Rev.12:12) unleashed through those who persecute the heralds of the gospel out of their hatred (John 15:18-21; 2 Tim. 3:12). Paul believed all things happen according to the counsel of the will of God (Eph. 1:11) and that God orchestrates all things together for the good of the saint—namely that he would be conformed to the image of Christ for the glory of Christ (Rom. 8:28-30). So, most likely, he believed God often decreed suffering for the good of his saints and the glory of God in the work of evangelism.

With all these realities in view Paul knew that his gospel imprisonment was a necessary part of his growth and future reward, the salvation of God’s elect, the building up of God’s saints, and the glorification of his great God and Savior. So, how could he do anything but joyfully follow his Lord in the mission regardless of the cost? May we do the same by his grace!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Perseverance Of The Saints Rather Than Eternal Security

This week we have made the move to the updated Fighter Verse lists so that the Scripture we memorize within the church each week matches what comes upon on the Fighter Verse app for those who use that. Since the app provides a blog and commentaries on the verses, I will no longer blog on the Fighter Verses. If some of you want to explain the weekly verse to your family, I would encourage you to check out the resources on the app or to get your hands on a good study Bible (either the Reformation Study Bible or ESV Study Bible). The notes in either one of these will invaluable to you. From now on, I will return to blogging on topics or biblical passages that are on my mind and which help explain some aspect of joyfully following, as well as loving God and others, all to God’s glory.

A very important aspect of joyfully following God to his glory is to understand what the Bible teaches about various aspects of the Christian life. One that many evangelicals over the past few generations have misunderstood is the security of the Christian. The common designation for that doctrine among general evangelicals has become “eternal security”. Though I agree that any person who has truly received and rested upon Christ alone for salvation is secure and will not fall from the state of grace, nevertheless, such a passive label for the doctrine has certainly weakened and ultimately twisted it.

The London Baptist Confession of 1689 (17.1) provides a much better statement of this biblical reality that through history has been known as perseverance of the saints:

Those whom God has accepted in the beloved, effectively called and sanctified by his Spirit, and given the precious faith of his elect unto, can neither totally nor finally fall from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved…. They shall be sure to be kept by the power of God unto salvation, where they shall enjoy their purchased possession, they being engraved upon the palm of [God’s] hands, and their names having been written in the book of life from all eternity.

The way the New Testament presents our salvation is that one who has trusted in Christ must persevere to the end to be saved (e.g. Matthew 24:13). Those who do not persevere were not in Christ in the first place (1 John 2:19). Yet, those who truly are Christ’s sheep and united to him will be preserved by God (John 10:27-30; Romans 8:38-39) and so will persevere in faith by his grace.

One text that presents this with clarity is Colossians 1:23. After Paul has written that the Father is “the one who has qualified you for the portion of the inheritance of the saints in light” (1:12), he is the one who “delivered us out of the domain of darkness and transferred [us] into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (1:13), and that Christ “reconciled [us unto God] in the body of his flesh through the death” in such a way that it is a done deal (1:22), Paul adds in verse 23a:  “if indeed you continue in the faith”. Paul is saying that our qualification, inheritance, deliverance, and reconciliation are all the complete, perfect work of our Savior, a done deal—that is, if we continue to trust in Jesus Christ.

Now, this condition might be taken to mean that it must be our own effort, that we must make this happen, if it were not for all the language in verses 12-22 that affirms true salvation is totally from God and secure, and also for what follows 23a. In 1:23b Paul writes that the manner in which a person continues in the faith is literally “having been established”. The word that Paul uses connotes something that happened in the past that someone else did to true Christians and which has continuing results into the present upon them. That act was laying a foundation and establishing them upon that foundation. The one who performed the action, in context, was God (cf. 1:12-14; 19-22). In other words, at the very heart of our ability to persevere in the faith is the reality that God has established us upon his firm foundation and so we continue established. This enables us also to be “steadfast, not moving away from the hope produced by the gospel which you heard” (1:23).

So, when we run across such conditions in the New Testament or warnings that one dare not drift away (Hebrews 2:1), they become part of the means of grace whereby our eyes are turned upon Christ who has perfectly secured our salvation and who keeps us in that salvation.

Though several benefits of this doctrine could be listed, two of the most important are these. First, it reminds us there is such a thing as a false profession of faith that shows up in those who are not truly born again and thus do not truly change in such a way that they obey Christ (Matthew 7:21-27). Second, it reminds us that the Christian life is not passive. Paul, in Ephesians 6:10, tells us we must be strong in Christ and in the strength that comes from his might”.  Our strength and standing, in other words, come only in an from Christ.  Yet, as he expounds in verses 12-18 upon how this can take place, he makes it clear that we must use Christ-purchased instruments or armor by which his empowering grace works in us—things such as truth, righteousness, the gospel, faith, salvation (and understanding the hope that comes from it), God’s Word, prayer, and the support of each other in the church (this last one implied in the call to pray for each other in v. 18).

So, as you think through this doctrine and read material upon it I would encourage you to look beyond the simplistic explanations that often fly under the banner of “eternal security” and look to the more robust treatments you will find known as “perseverance of the saints.”

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Fighter Verses

The Minden Evangelical Free Church uses a weekly memorization program, borrowed from Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It helps us hide the Word of God in our heart so that we can use it to stand strong against Satan and for God's glory as we fight the fight of faith.

Each week I blog on the Fighter Verses so that we can not only grasp the importance of each passage, but can also explain the same to our family.

This week's post is below...

The Refreshment Of Gracious Speech: Proverbs 16:24

In the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel, chapter 14, verse 27, Jonathan, the son of Saul, the first king of Israel, found and ate honey in the midst of a hard day of battle. The text says that afterward “his eyes became brighter”. In other words, as the New Living Translation puts it, “he felt refreshed”. It is amazing what food can do to perk a person up, especially if it is nutritious and good tasting.

This week’s Fighter Verse, Proverbs 16:24, reminds us that pleasant, godly speech functions in the same manner: “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” The word translated “gracious” is used elsewhere to speak of the beauty of God (Psalms 27:4 and 90:17), as well as that which is pleasing to the Lord (Proverbs 15:26) and brings good results (Proverbs 3:17). The point seems to be that when we speak words that please God, words that are true, that are with love, they reflect the splendor of God and bring benefit to the other person. Such speech for the one who hears it is as refreshing as coming across delicious, nutritious food when weak and famished.

The reality is that the words of those who speak rashly or in anger feel like sword thrusts, yet, those who speak in wisdom benefit their friends (Proverbs 12:18; Ephesians 4:29). So, is your speech bringing refreshment or is it cutting others down?